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UNC, Warren County residents commemorate anniversary of environmental justice movement

Warren County
Shauna Williams, President of the Warren County Community Center, sits for a portrait in the Community Center on Feb. 4, 2022. “The part that really drives me crazy is that they had options. They had much better options. And still, they chose to put it all here, in Warren County. It blows my mind,” William says. Photo Courtesy of Carolina Bittenbender.

During the fall of 1982, law enforcement arrested over 500 Warren County residents protesting in the first major demonstration of the environmental justice movement.

This month, on the 40th anniversary of those historic protests, Warren County residents are partnering with UNC's Wilson Library to commemorate their resistance with a photo exhibit.

Four years prior to the protests, by cover of night, a fleet of trucks illegally dumped polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) — a known carcinogen — across 240 miles of highway in 14 North Carolina counties. 

By 1982, a  string of lawsuits and appeals from Warren County residents failed to stop the state from deciding to relocate 60,000 tons of PCB-contaminated soil to a landfill near their community.

The dumpsite, less than two miles from Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church, was selected not because it was safe, the residents said. 

Instead, they said, it was chosen because the county was poor, mostly comprised of Black residents and had no representation in the North Carolina Senate.

Despite the protests' inability to stop the initial dumping, the Warren County protests are credited with sparking the environmental justice movement — a movement that later spread across the globe.

Biff Hollingsworth, a collecting and public programming archivist at Wilson Library’s Southern Historical Collection, said library historians contacted the Warren County Environmental Action Team to collaborate on the project.

“We’ve been developing ways to work directly with communities so they can tell their own stories,” Hollingsworth said.

The Wilson exhibit is just one facet of a weeks-long series of events organized by Warren County leaders, like the Rev. Bill Kearney, to honor the protestors — a multiracial group that joined to fight the dumping.

“Blacks, whites, young, old, male, female, Indigenous Native American, all came together in a collective voice against an injustice,” Kearney said.

Kearney said he has coordinated anniversary projects with over 60 organizations, including universities, environmental activist networks and government agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

As an associate minister at Coley Springs, Kearney has continued to advocate for the health of his community. For Kearney, the story is still not over.

“Maybe this is the time that I can step in and help carry the ball or pass the torch to that next generation of environmentalists,” he said.

Environmental racism

According to Shauna Williams, the president of the Warren County Community Center, the Warren County protestors were inspired by the resistance movements which came before them. 

Williams, who covered the initial roadside dumping as a reporter in 1978, said an experienced civil rights activist taught the demonstrators to lay down in front of the soil-laden trucks to stop them from entering the site.

In response, she said, law enforcement arrived at the scene and arrested and jailed hundreds of protestors, including one as young as four years old.

“They were outfitted for war,” Williams said.

Though she did not participate in the protests, her stepdaughter, Consherto Williams, participated as a high school student. A photo of the then-15-year-old taken during one march is featured in the Wilson Library exhibit.

Consherto Williams’ birth mother later died of cancer – just five years after the PCB-laced soil was dumped in Warren County, Williams said. 

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According to Kearney, while residents have been speculating about high death rates, there has been little effort from the state to study the health effects of the soil dump.

“I don’t think there’s any true tracking,” Kearney said.

After years of citizen efforts, the landfill was detoxified in 2003.

The choice by the state to dump the toxins in a predominantly Black community led the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, who was arrested at the 1982 protests, to coin the term "environmental racism."

Chavis’ involvement partially led to studies by the EPA and other organizations, which confirmed that hazardous waste disposal was concentrated in minority communities across the country.

The photo exhibit is housed in Wilson Library's North Carolina Collection Gallery, and will hold an official opening event on Sept. 15. It will be available for viewing until Dec. 22. 

The Warren County African American History Collective is also hosting a commemorative march to the landfill on Sept. 17.    

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